“HOW TO SUCCEED IN SPITE OF RICHES”

JAMES 5:1-6

SEPTEMBER 23, 2012

 

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  Back in the day when Senator Joe McCarthy was terrorizing people by accusing them of being Communists, one of his favorite ploys was to take things that people had said out of context.  Sam Irvin, an easy going, Andy Griffith sort of Senator from North Carolina, told a story as a way of exposing McCarthy's tactics.

            He told of a fire and brimstone preacher in North Carolina who didn't think women should wear topknots.  Now, most of us are too young to know about topknots those spiraling hairstyles that were very popular early in the 20th century, and they are making a comeback today.  One can find a number of YouTube videos on the subject.  Anyway, this old-school, fire and brimstone preacher didn't think women ought to wear topknots.  Why, I don't know.  Maybe it exposed too much of a woman's neck, I don't know.

            This preacher even preached a sermon entitled, "Topknot, Come Down."  An angry woman in his congregation confronted him afterwards and said, "There is no place in the Bible that says I should not wear a topknot!"

            The preacher said, "It's right here in Matthew 24:17, 'Let him who is on the house top not come down....'"

            Well, hopefully, we won't quote James out of context this morning.  As we turn to our passage for today, I want us to remember three things. 

            First, remember that social passion blazes through the bible and not just James' Letter. 

            I don't think I ever told you that I was student body president of Thomas A. Edison Elementary School in Glendale, California.  On Friday mornings, the entire school assembled by classroom in front of the flag poll and, as student body president, I led them in the Pledge of Allegiance.  For old times' sake, I want to do that again.  Please stand and join with me in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

 

            I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

 

            Note the affirmation at the end.  Note the pledge of justice for all - not just the strong, not just the rich, not just the privileged, not just for those who can buy it - it's for all, including the poor, the weak, the dispossessed.  Where did our forbearers get this passion for justice?  They got it from the Bible.  Justice for all did not originate in our country.  It originated in the mind and heart of God.

            Think about it.  Moses condemned the Pharaoh for the way the Pharaoh treated the Hebrew people.   Amos condemned Israeli royalty for the way they tread on the poor.  Isaiah predicted dire consequences for those who built great estates while forgetting the poor.  And, of course, Jesus said, "When you did it to the least of these you did it to me."  Following in the biblical tradition James bellows, Weep and wail you rich people for you have cheated the laborers in your fields and the cries of this injustice have reached the ears of God.

            No other book rivals the social passion of the Bible.  No other book speaks so vehemently against social wrongs and social injustice.  James is simply following the biblical writers before him.

            That leads me to the second thing I want us to remember this morning.  I not only want us to remember that the Bible burns with social passion, but also I want us to remember that James had a legitimate complaint against the arrogant rich of his day.  What James writes here is not sour grapes.  What he writes here is not the resentments of one who knows he will never become materially rich.  Not at all.  James' condemnations spring from real injustices. 

            James has two aims in our passage this morning.  First, he wants to show the fleeting nature of earthly riches, and second, he wants to expose the detestable character of the arrogant rich ... not the rich, the arrogant rich.

            When it comes to the earth's riches let me tell you about a guy named Jeff Ferrera of Waukegan, Illinois.  He was doing what Trudy and I like to do, he was reconciling his bank statement.  Trudy and I love to reconcile our bank statement.  It's one of our favorite date nights.  We usually poor a glass of wine, and head into the study and use our software program iBank, we are a Mac family not a PC family, to reconcile the bank statement.  It's great fun.  Anyway, one day Jeff Ferrera of Waukegan, Illinois was reconciling his bank statement and he went online to obtain his latest balance and it read, "$924,844,204.32"   He had become an instant multi-millionaire.  Actually, he was one of 826 customers of the First National Bank of Chicago who became instant multi-millionaires.  It was the biggest error in the history of U.S. banking. 

            Ferrera said, "I had a lot of people telling me to transfer it to a Cayman Islands account and run for it."  But he didn't.  Like most of the others, he simply reported the error to bank officials who could only say, "It was a computer programming error."

            James says earthly riches are nearly as temporary.  Listen to James' words once again.  Verse one,

 

            Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.  Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten.  Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.

 

            In New Testament times there were three main sources of wealth.  First, there was grain and corn, and James says to those who stockpile grain and corn in big barns or storehouses, that it their grain and corn will rot.  It will be gone.

            The second source of wealth was clothing or garments.  Samson offered changes of garments to anyone who could solve his riddle.  Naaman brought garments to a prophet of Israel to obtain the information he desired.  Paul claimed that he had coveted no one's money or apparel.  And James says the fine garments you have will not last long.  They will be ruined, eaten by moths.

            James, however, saves the best for last.  He says that all the gold and silver you have stashed away in your safe will rust.  Now, the point is that gold and silver do not actually rust, but James is warning the rich that even the most precious and even the most indestructible things they have are doomed to decay and dissolution. 

            Again his first aim, to underscore the fleeting nature of earthly riches.  This leads us to James' second aim.  After taking aim at earth's riches, he points out the detestable character of the arrogant rich, and in so doing he points out four injustices. 

            Injustice #1 - The rich were not using their wealth as a trust for the larger community.  Rust, you see, not only refers to the fleeting nature of earthly riches, it also refers to the lack of use.  People in the ancient world expected the rich to use their wealth for the common good.  The fact that it was rusting, implies wealth being hoarded and not used.  John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, put it this way.  He said, "God has not appointed gold for rust nor garment for moth; but on the contrary God has designed them as aids for human life."

            Injustice #2 - They underpaid their laborers.  Folks, God is the unseen checker of wages and salary scales.  God watches to see if employees are working hard and if employers are paying properly, and listen to what James sees ...

           

            The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.

           

            Unfair wages set off alarm bells in heaven.  By the way, I found it heartwarming how Jay Leno recently gave back half his yearly salary to save jobs of some of the Tonight Show staff.  Now, Jay Leno, has to get by on $15 million dollars a year instead of $30 million dollars a year, but still, it was a noble thing to do.  I hope his actions caught the attention of other highly paid individuals, who receive obscene salaries and bonuses and yet do not always take care of their lesser paid employees.  Unjust compensation reaches the ears of the Lord of Hosts.

            Injustice #3 - The arrogant rich had the means to help the less fortunate, but they were not.  Instead, they engaged in excessive consumption.  Verse five.

 

            You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

 

            A number of years ago Warren Buffett and Bill Gates played a round of golf at the Omaha Country Club.  At the time the Omaha World Herald speculated on whether these two men, the two richest men in the world, had placed a wager on their round of golf as some non-Presbyterians sometimes do.  Warren Buffet said, "No, at least nothing that would affect the gross national product."

            It's heartwarming to see how these two very rich men are using their wealth to tackle some of our nation's and our world's social problems.  And I don't know about Bill Gates, but from all reports Warren Buffett does not engage in excessive consumption.  He's lived in the same house for years.  He does not go about fattening his heart.  I think that's why he is so loved and respected by so many.  That can't always be said of all the rich people in our nation. 

            Injustice #4 - The arrogant rich have been drawn to activities that silence and get rid of opposition.  Verse six.

 

            You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

 

            The righteous one may be one of two people.  He may be Christ.  It may well be that James is saying that in their opposition of the poor, the selfish rich have crucified Christ again, that every wound inflicted on the naked, the hungry, the dispossessed is another wound on Christ.  Or the righteous one could simply be anyone who stands for the good.  I think of the comment made by a friend of Socrates.  This friend, Alcibiades, sometimes said, "Socrates, I hate you ... for every time I see you, you show me what I am."

            The good person often reminds the evil person of what he is and what he ought to do.  And the desire for wealth is so great among some ... just think of the runaway corporate and individual greed that set our current recession into motion ... the desire for wealth is so great among some they are prepared to hurt and destroy other people in order to lay their hands on it.

            All this leads us to the last thing I want us to remember.  Remember, we can succeed in spite of riches.  You see, the Bible is not opposed to wealth, per se.  In fact, in the eleventh verse of this chapter James praises a rich man, Job. 

            No, the problem is not riches, it is the abuse of riches.  God has given some the ability to make a lot of money and the problem is some choose to hoard it, or lavishly spend their riches on themselves.

            Paul Anka, the singer and songwriter. was asked an important question and listen to his answer.  Paul Anka was asked if it was possible, since he made so much money on royalties he received from writing the theme song for The Tonight Show, if he could live exclusively from that one source of revenue.  He said, "I imagine it would depend on how one lives."

            I suppose so.  I suppose it would depend on if one were living for oneself or for Christ.